On the morning of my birthday this past October, I began reading the first few pages of the book, Oranges, by John McPhee. In the world of nonfiction, it’s a classic. A couple of lines jumped out at me as my eyes hopped over these words: “Citrus does not come true from seed. If you plant an orange seed, a grapefruit seed might spring up. If you plant a seed of that grapefruit, you might get a bitter lemon. With a graft, however, what you saw was what you got.” I realized how lucky I was to have not been born into the citrus family.
Sometimes my family and friends may have wondered about my origins. I can be more acidic than a red grapefruit when the circumstances are ripe. On my birthday, as I read McPhee’s words I realized that while I’d grown a year older I’d also grown considerably more sour this year, thanks in part to what was one of the most challenging years of my life.
I traveled to unknown parts of India seeking answers for a book I had been asked to write. I cold-called people in different towns, climbed into autos and taxis driven by men who could not communicate with me. I crisscrossed cities on foot with locals. I struck up conversations with people as I stood in line. I barged into the green room of actor Naseeruddin Shah—upon his daughter’s encouragement even though his wife had previously rebuffed my request—and delivered a one-minute elevator pitch about my book after which he gave me his email. I discovered, after I left Prithvi Theater, that he probably never looked at that email id. Nevertheless, I’d crossed an imaginary line when I barged into the place to present myself before a famous stranger while the faces that stared back at me were blank, indifferent, even caustic.
It was the year I hustled. I sent emails to accomplished people, politely pressuring them to respond. In some instances, those I’d supported in the past turned out to be less palatable than the rancid navel orange that grew in my front yard.
A gentleman in Chennai with an illustrious parentage spurned every request to meet me, refusing even to agree for a short phone call. Conversely and perhaps because of my disappointments, when someone who was entering the writing business approached me for advice, I shared as much as I possibly could. I learned something from that session of sharing; it gave me the confidence to teach a class in the future.
Some people I’d never met before, agreed to meet me at short notice. Some of those meetings would open my eyes to my own privileges. I realized why it was important to make the effort to seek out people even when I was intimidated. I found gurus in ramshackle shops.
It was the year I hustled. This year, I learned to push back and trust my instincts more. Change happens inside of us one small cell at a time.
In one fast hour, a Bangladeshi bookseller in Kolkata’s College Street sold me a dozen books, packaged them, and mailed them to my address in Chennai and texted me the tracking number. The gentleman spoke to me in pidgin English and had read, in Bengali, many of the works he sold; he knew the books intimately even though he wasn’t confident about conversing in English. Selling was not about a pretty façade in a fancy storefront on Park Street or about knowing a language. It was the attitude to work, and about helping find solutions to someone’s problems.
Change happens inside of us one small cell at a time. This year, I learned to push back and trust my instincts more. As I tried to interview people for my book, I ran up against an army of gatekeepers who thought they were more important than the people they were keeping inside the gate. One famous writer who continues to walk about in a cloud of his own flatulence gave me a time for an interview. I landed at the venue to discover that two others had been given the same time slot. I waited for him to finish the other interviews. Like setting yoghurt, I grew more tart with every passing minute. At the end of the two interviews, when I went to take my seat, the gentleman said he had no time for me and just got up and walked away while I watched on, stupefied. Two hours later, I punched out an email in which I told him that I was appalled at his behavior. He apologized, telling me that he owed me an excellent interview for the gaffe. He never responded to my follow-up emails.
Now, I’ve begun to look behind the halo of virtuosity and appreciate decency and integrity a little more. Just because someone was in the limelight, it didn’t mean that they had risen to their position by dint of hard work. The president of my adoptive nation s a fine example of how victory didn’t always reflect merit. Instead, during the months of research, I sought to find out how to add more value and meaning to my book.
I heeded the advice of one woman in Chennai who warned me about trying to write a book that was formulaic and also slapped together to fit a spot on the shelf. “Don’t churn out something just because a publisher wants you to do it a particular way,” she said, alluding to the publication of books that were smart and funny, with little depth. “Dig in. Do your own research.”
Through the course of the year I’ve felt as if I were standing at the edge of a precipice as an endless fog circled around me. Day by day, one word at a time, I’ve groped my way into building something that has been personally satisfying. I received the best pointer from a statesman in Delhi whose writings I respect. He told me to be unrelenting in my work: “But whatever you do, don’t be afraid to take a stand.”
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. http://kalpanamohan.com